This impressive multi-linear novel weaves together apparently disparate lives from both sides of the Atlantic: early aviation pioneers, Alcock and Brown (the first to cross the Atlantic by powered flight); Abolitionist campaigner and former slave, Frederick Douglass; Senator George Mitchell, brokering peace at Stormount in the late 90s; Newfoundland journalist, Emily Ehrlich, and her ancestors and descendants.
Each narrative thread is exquisitely rendered in convincing detail, the result of painstaking research (courtesy of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation). Each paradigm presented is so dramatically different (on the surface) that the project could echo David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas approach. However, the critical difference is: a consistency of style and tone. McCann isn’t playing genre-games, but seems more interested in how ostensibly diverse lives intersect – the echoes and resonances rippling throughout history, back-and-forth across three thousand miles and more. The novel isn’t trying to be flashy, but quietly builds up its complexity through an accretion of narrative detail. The framing narrative (hinted at in the fragmentary prologue) – a tumbledown house by a lough in the north of Ireland – doesn’t gain significance until a lot later, when we realise what lives have passed through it. The staccato sound of the gulls dropping shells upon the roof – to crack them open – seems to trigger the memories. The past is cracked open, one shell at a time. Although some remain unbroken, and “lay there like a thing unexploded.” This threat of narrative ordnance lingers over the novel, hides in every chapter, a gunman in the hedgerow, the bomb in the flowerbed – the violent parenthesis to peace. The end to slavery, the end to the Troubles – these are achievements of human endeavour fought for by brave men and women, and never to be taken for granted.
This novel honours the shoulders we stand upon without being bombastic or overly-aware of its own importance. It builds up the profundity in quiet ways, in the rendering of character and place. McCann is a master of the terse sentence, the elided phrase. His syntax is knapped down to its essence, and he builds his prose like a drystone-wall builder, slotting his hard, flinty material into place with a clink. And in a similar way, his plot falls into place – block by block – until it presents an impressive bridge across an ocean. An ambitious, humane novel of haunting beauty.
About the reviewer
Kevan Manwaring is currently undertaking a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester (in the form of a novel). He is an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies at the British Library, and teaches creative writing for the Open University. One day he hopes to have a proper job. Blog: https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/